Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A proposal to place rotating homeless camps in each of Missoula's six voting wards was tabled in committee on Wednesday, even after an amendment that removed parks and rights-of-way as potential locations.

In doing so, members of the City Council praised Kristen Jordan's proposal for its effort to seek solutions to the city's homeless issue, but most agreed it wasn't fully cooked. It also came with a number of unanswered questions ranging from city liability to potential lawsuits filed by disgruntled neighborhoods.

“It's a very difficult problem that's multi-faceted, and I think your heart is in place in trying to solve this,” said council member Amber Sherrill. “But in reality, none of us want to have encampments in our parks. I don't see this as a very tenable solution right now. I worry about not having a provider, not having security and not having a bio-hazard plan for clean up.”

Jordan opened the meeting Wednesday by again blaming the media for what she described as inaccurate reporting. Two weeks ago, when she unveiled her proposal, she stated that parks were on the table, along with city and private property, and added that her plan included no security.

Jordan has attempted to walk those statements back ever since and she painted her proposal in new terms on Wednesday, saying any property identified for a homeless camp would be selected in “combination of whatever works based upon some pre-identified metrics we need to put in place.”

“We are applying an even lens across any property that could potentially be used in this space to ensure neighbor safety for the housed and unhoused, and that our public parks and rights-of-way are still usable,” Jordan said. “I guess I didn't go into these metrics last week. These locations will be found using a strict set of criteria that ensures public safety and ensures that we're in compliance with our local code.”

Later in the meeting Jordan added, “If our metrics show there's a park out on the edge of 'Ward 82,' or wherever, it might be a good place.” She described any location that's chosen under her proposal as “a rotating zone where camping is not enforced.”

With parks initially in play, Jordan accepted a friendly amendment to remove them from her proposal. Still, other aspects of the plan raised concerns.

“I have concerns about this proposal because we need oversight, we need security and we need funding,” said council member Gwen Jones. “But there has been value in the discussion we've had. There are some ideas floating out there and some other tools, and we need to keep moving forward with that.”

The proposal also challenged the ability of city staff to implement the plan while its priority was already placed on getting the Johnson Street Shelter for the next year.

That project used the remainder of the city's American Rescue Plan Act funding and there's nothing currently available for other programs at this time, city officials have said. They also have concerns over how they'll respond to the issue next year with no identified funding source.

“A good discussion”

Several council members noted the city's lack of resources to staff any camps and the current lack of interest among service providers to do the same. And while the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space has been successful at its location off West Broadway and Mullan Road, running the facility doesn't come cheap.

Eric Legvold, director of impact for The United Way of Missoula County, said the current outdoor site costs around $480,000 a year to operate. When staffing is included, the cost climbs to around $800,000.

Staffing is essential to a program's success, he said.

“The hurdles are staffing,” he said. “It's a significant cost, budget line, but we see the impacts from having that because it's building relationships that provide mobility upward to sustainable housing. It's also providing a secure location where people feel safe.”

The Johnson Street shelter will open for a year in the coming weeks.
The Johnson Street shelter will open for a year in the coming weeks.

Funding rotating homeless camps, providing staffing and security, remains beyond the reach of the city given what it's spending on its other homeless efforts. And directing resources to rotating camps could effectively delay or eliminate other efforts, city officials said.

“We want to be candid about our capacity, because we do want to meet our timelines and achieve the outcomes that we've already committed to. It's a conversation about prioritization,” said Eran Pehan, director of city planning and development.

Other members of council want city staff to stay focused on getting the Johnson Street shelter open before cold weather arrives. They also pushed back on council member Daniel Carlino's suggestion that the city's response to homelessness remains “complacent.”

“I would argue there's not a single person in this room that's complacent,” said council member Sierra Farmer. “It just feels like there's a lot more that needs to be discussed. I think there's a little more work we need to do. I think we need to focus on getting the Johnson Street shelter open and focus on some of the initiatives coming forward.”

Jordan accepted the tabling of her proposal with grace and urged members of council to keep the issue front-of-mind.

“I didn't expect this to pass, honestly,” she said. “I wanted to put forward a solution that's outside the box. They are neighbors living without basic services which are sanitation, sharps containers or toilets. We have neighbors who don't know where they can camp. We have neighbors who don't have access to shelter beds.”